Classic Rock Review

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Van Der Graaf Generator – The Aerosol Grey Machine (1969)

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According to the All-Music Guide, this originally started out as a Hammill solo album (the band broke up before it got into the studio), but the band came back together in the midst of recording, so it became Van Der Graaf Generator’s debut. The best thing about this is that the album is primarily a showcase of Hammill’s talents and less of the others, and since Peter was the most talented of all of them, this can’t really be a bad thing. Some tracks aren’t as well-formed as others, focusing on dark atmosphere far more than on interesting melody twists, but quite a few of them showcase Peter’s strengths in each at the same time.

A couple of the tracks, in fact, are among my favorites that Peter and the band would ever put out. “Running Back” is related to a “normal” song subject, a man’s feelings towards a woman, but it’s done in a dark, stately manner unlike most any other ‘love’ song I’ve ever heard. From the somber bass and acoustic lines the piece is built around, to the moody vocal melody (and incredibly well-formed lyrics for a love song), to the dark shadow of Peter’s singing, to the alternately happy and melancholy flute lines in the mid-song instrumental passage, this piece is a virtually ideal snapshot of everything I like about the band, with basically none of the bad. Similarly, “Aguarian” showcases Peter’s singing and melody-writing abilities extremely well, even as Peter moves into bizarre whacky land with his lyrical imagery. Come on, is there any chance of getting that “Now we look to the sun in every direction” chorus out of your head after hearing it? The rest of the band does fine too, though – the thumping bass sound is killer, and the minimalistic piano lines are perfectly placed.

There’s other good stuff to be found as well, most notably from the opening “Afterwards,” which shows that the band could have been perfectly successful working in the “conventional” formulas they would avoid in the rest of their history. The vocal melody is memorable and non-trivial (ie my definition of “catchy”), Peter gives a warm vocal performance (while singing a somewhat chilly vocal melody), the low-key wah-wah’s give a strangely uplifting feel in the midst of the moodiness of the rest, and the electric piano solo in the middle is very pretty and moody. What else could be wanted? Oh yeah, lyrics like “the pedals that were blooming are just paper in your hands.”

The album also has three other short tracks, which is definitely something not to be found on later VDGG albums. “Necromancer” is a fine energetic piece, with “spacey” keyboard and guitar parts helping out a bunch of energetic vocal lines about, well, being a “Necromancer” (not to mention that funny part where Peter wails up and down on the word “blaaaaaaaaaaack”). The other two short tracks are insubstantial, but cute nonetheless – the title track is a goofy fake jingle, and “Black Smoke Yen” is a minute-and-a-half of bass, drum and piano jamming that works more as an introduction to Aguarian than anything else.

The remaining three tracks are more or less ok, but unfortunately not particularly interesting in the context of the album. The two parts of “Orthenthian St.” are each fairly pretty as background noise, but aside from the great sound of Peter’s voice, and maybe one or two memorable lyrics, I’ll be damned if, even after a ton of listens, I can describe much about it. “Into a Game” is a bit more aggressive, but except for parts of the chorus, ” ” Finally, fans might like “Octopus,” since it comes closest to the classic VDGG style than anything else here, but except for the downward organ swirls, I’m not too impressed with Peter’s hysterical ramblings or with the instrumental parts or whatever (though the moody organ chords in the middle do kinda rule in their own way). It’s pretty danged far from the worst thing VDGG has ever done, though, and I do like the feeling of desperation in the last couple of minutes, so it’s not an album killer.

In short, this album shows a band with quite a bit of talent but that occasionally has trouble getting that talent put on record. In other words, a quintessential VDGG album. Quite good, though.

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Van Der Graaf Generator The Aerosol Grey Machine | | Leave a comment